The Jim Bridger power plant near Rock Springs during its nightly shift change in October 2019. (RJ Pieper)

Gov. Mark Gordon issued an emergency suspension order Monday seeking to temporarily block the Environmental Protection Agency from potentially shutting down one of four coal-burning units at the Jim Bridger power plant for falling out of compliance with regional haze parameters.

Jim Bridger owner and operator PacifiCorp — which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming — has until Jan. 1 to install “selective catalytic reduction” controls to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at unit 2, and until the end of 2022 to install the controls at unit 1, under current EPA guidelines. The utility, however, never initiated the expensive and lengthy installation process because of a tentative deal struck between it, the state and the EPA, according to Gordon.

EPA, however, has yet to finalize that agreement, which would allow PacifiCorp to forgo expensive SCR controls to meet regional haze parameters for the power plant. The delay contributed to the late-stage showdown. 

“We had a deal,” Gordon said in a Monday press release. “PacifiCorp, EPA and Wyoming all agreed in 2020 that the regional haze guidelines would not only be met, but exceeded with the revised [State Implementation Plan]. Now, with that deal unilaterally abandoned by EPA, this emergency order is necessary to protect Wyoming workers from EPA’s recklessness.”

EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver didn’t respond to WyoFile’s inquiries for this story. In November Region 8 spokesman Richard Mylott said, “EPA intends to issue a proposed decision on this plan revision for public comment in the near future.”

It’s unclear whether EPA considers a shutdown order a possible course of action.

Negotiations between PacifiCorp, the state and EPA are ongoing, according to the governor’s office and the utility.

Bernie Caulfield, left, a senior engineer at the Jim Bridger power plant, speaks to two fellow workers inside the plant Aug. 21, 2019. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

“PacifiCorp will continue to operate Jim Bridger unit 2 in compliance with the Clean Air Act under the governor’s temporary emergency suspension after December 31, 2021,” PacifiCorp spokesman David Eskelsen told WyoFile via email.

Gordon’s emergency-suspension order could remain in effect for up to four months, allowing for negotiations to continue and hopefully result in a resolution that allows Jim Bridger units 1 and 2 to remain in operation until they are converted to natural gas in 2024, Gordon’s Chief Energy Advisor Randall Luthi said.

However, Gordon indicated that EPA Administrator Michael Regan could decline his emergency-suspension order.

Meantime, Gordon has promised to sue EPA for its alleged delay in acting on the proposed revisions to the regional haze plan for Jim Bridger, according to a Nov. 15 “notice of intent” letter.

Critics and potential impacts 

The Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council is party to ongoing litigation over the state’s regional haze plan.

Both the state and PacifiCorp initially agreed, more than a decade ago, with EPA regional haze parameters that would require SCR controls at Jim Bridger units 1 and 2, according to PRBRC attorney Shannon Anderson. Yet as wrangling over the regional haze plan wore on, it appears the utility assumed the EPA would approve an alternative compliance strategy while PacifiCorp considered either retiring the units early or shifting them from coal to natural gas, she said.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant Sept. 8, 2021. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Based on the uncertainty of federal approval and shifting plans for Jim Bridger units 1 and 2 — as well as objections to the proposed alternative — it’s disingenuous to suggest that the EPA is entirely at fault for creating the regulatory compliance emergency, Anderson said.

“So, what happens after the four months?” Anderson told WyoFile via email. “Are the [Jim] Bridger workers just pawns on the Gordon v. EPA chess board?”

PRBRC maintains that the alternative regional haze compliance proposal put forth by PacifiCorp and the state is flawed and would undermine the benefits of the current plan.

“What this history shows is that for a decade now SCR has been required at the Jim Bridger power plant and PacifiCorp has had ample time to incorporate compliance into its plans,” PRBRC, Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association wrote to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality in August 2019. “In fact, the plan was adopted with flexibility for the timing of PacifiCorp’s compliance in mind. However, instead of moving forward with compliance, PacifiCorp now is proposing to completely rollback the requirements at the 11th hour.”

“We had a deal.”

Gov. Mark Gordon

Gordon notified EPA Administrator Regan of his emergency-suspension order in a Monday letter, which was accompanied by a new 24-page study by University of Wyoming Professor of Energy Economics Timothy Considine. The study details negative economic implications of immediately shutting down Jim Bridger unit 2.

Such an action would result in a “$148.6 million loss in value added to the State of Wyoming,” Considine concluded, including 65 full time equivalent jobs at the plant and even more indirect jobs — mostly in Sweetwater County.

PacifiCorp’s Wyoming plans 

The Jim Bridger power plant, located east of Rock Springs, employs approximately 700 people. The plant has been in operation for about 47 years. It burns about 6 million tons of coal annually with an electric generation capacity of more than 2,400 megawatts, mostly serving PacifiCorp customers in other western states.

PacifiCorp’s most recent Integrated Resource Plan — published in August — calls for converting units 1 and 2 to natural gas in 2024 in order to serve “peak” demand loads and help maintain system reliability. PacifiCorp has added SCR controls to coal units 3 and 4, and plans to keep those two units in operation through 2037. 

PacifiCorp plans to retire 14 of its coal-fired power units across its six-state operating region by 2030, and a total of 19 by 2040, according to the company. It also plans to add more than 3,700 megawatts of new wind power by 2040.

The utility also plans to host TerraPower’s proposed 345-megawatt Natrium nuclear power reactor at its Naughton power plant near Kemmerer, where one coal unit has already been converted to natural gas. PacifiCorp plans to retire the remaining two coal units at Naughton in time for the Natrium nuclear reactor to go online in 2028.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. What sorts of “emergency orders” will be issued for the new nuclear plant? Will Cheyenne issue another “honor bond?” Asking for a friend who remembers the Johnson County War.

    1. I guess I missed Wyoming getting Florida like winters. Why not just shut down all of the dirt burners and freeze to death when the windmills don’t turn. You must have missed the debacle in Texas last year. In the meantime China puts many new coal burning units on-line every year. Affordable energy is at the core of being competitive in the world economy, we are running away from this without a plan. Let’s see how well that works out.

  2. Gordon made a dramatic speech at Wyoming Water Development annual meeting about carbon emissions and climate change and how we need to act now ! The technology is available to take carbon out and turn it into high protein animal feed this would be a good fit for Wyoming let’s invest in our future and lead the nation in clean energy.

  3. Once again, we have two parties negotiating in bad faith. First, Berkshire Hathaway, as the owner of the Jim Bridger plant, has had 10 years to either convert to burn natural gas as an interim solution or to install the required equipment. And after they frittered away that decade, our right-wing governor decides to intervene and sue the federal agency that has regulatory oversight. And the saddest thing of all is that the Wyoming taxpayers who are footing the bill for yet more lawsuits, foot dragging and acrimony are not the beneficiaries of the electricity generated at Jim Bridger–Utah gets the power at more reasonable prices than does Wyoming, who has to live with the hazy, polluted skies and the high rates and lawyer bills. Gotta make you wonder….

  4. Gordon is pissin’ against the wind yet again. And how much taxpayer money does he intend to waste with all his frivolous a law suits? Has he ever won one?

  5. The Jim Bridger coal power plants continue produce pollution for Wyoming but electricity for many beyond our borders. Not a good deal for us no matter what swaps are negotiated. Swaping coal for gas is no step forward for a nearly 50 year old plant. Its a “two step” dance in the carbon pollution world. How sad.